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How to qualify for and find a job as a dentist

How to qualify for and find a job as a dentist

Dentistry is a superb career for those that like to work with their hands, enjoy a financially secure future, have the flexibility of self-employment, work closely with their patients, encourage public health or just use their creativity to make people more conventionally beautiful. If any of these sound good to you then read on: we'll tell you all about making your way in the world of dentistry!

If you're thinking about getting a job as a dentist, we can understand why - one of the best things about modern life is our ability to supersede sugar's detrimental effects, defy deformed jaws and carve out those cavities.

Applying for a dentistry course

The first stage in your dental career is that of qualification. As a trainee for a high-earning job with a lot of responsibility, you will need to be academically capable and this, unfortunately, is not negotiable. You need to be able to demonstrate excellent science and maths skills to show you can cope with the work ahead!

So, nearly every typical dentistry course available wants to see 3 A's at A Level. If you have a non-UK equivalent, those too expect you to have been the best or very best in your class. Some also demand that you achieved these A's on your first sitting of A Levels - no resits welcome! If you did equally well in other subjects but not in the sciences, there are some dentistry courses that involve a pre-dental year to help you catch up. To go ahead to this, move down to the next section.

You may also be asked to complete the UKCAT. This is the UK Clinical Aptitude Test that many medical degree applicants are asked to take (another possibility is the BMAT or British Medical Aptitude Test). This is a 2 hour test with five sections to complete. It's only multiple-choice, making it simpler in some respects to the BMAT but has more areas to complete. Practice tests and an official guide are available from the UKCAT company and online forums are useful for reading about what other people experienced.

The first section is Verbal Reasoning, which tests your ability to understand written information. Next, you have Quantitative Reasoning, which is similar but geared towards numbers. Thirdly, Abstract Reasoning presents you with situational data and asks you to draw parallels. The penultimate is Decision Analysis, where you are asked to make judgements, and the final test is Situational Judgement which zeroes in on your ability to comprehend the various facets of real-life problems.

Finally, applicants may be asked to complete a DBS application (Disclosure and Barring Service; formerly known as the CRB or Criminal Records Bureau). This process is designed to weed out those that have been legally noted as threats to vulnerable people.

I didn't do any science at Sixth Form but I really, really want to be a dentist!

For those of us who didn't find maths and science quite so easy in our teen years, dentistry can still be an option. A few universities offer courses with pre-dental years, designed to bring you up to speed with your scientific knowledge. Universities may ask for certain GCSEs and will still want to see straight A's in other subjects. They may also decide your application by interview.

I'm a graduate but I want to change paths

If you've already completed a degree and has subsequently decided you'd like to be a dentist, you may have one option. As long as your degree is in a bio-medical area, then this is very possible! Rather than a 'conversion' degree course, a graduate entry degree course is the one for you. This takes just 4 years, rather than 5.

So what does a dental course involve?

The first year can vary, depending on your entry route. If you're on a pre-dental year, your first year consists of bringing your knowledge up to speed with other dental undergraduates by taking modules covering the most important aspects of the syllabus. If you're taking a post-graduate conversion-style course, the first year usually involves cramming in the medical knowledge contained in the first two years of a normal dentistry course.

Once all three forms of students are up to speed, the early part of dentistry courses generally involve learning simple procedures and methods, the necessary biology, disease and how to manage patient health. As you progress, you'll spend more time practising dentistry. This will likely start in the university's specialised department but will certainly branch out. As you enter the latter half of your degree, placements in hospitals, university surgeries and community clinics will feature too. This is also when you will start to think about the ways in which you can specialise (of which there are many!). Your choice of speciality may relate to the type of treatment you are most interested in, types of disease and illness, types of diagnosis or the patient cohort you find most compelling.

What sort of experience or work will prepare me for dentistry?

First and foremost, the best work experience will be in a dental surgery or hospital department. Universities really like to see a couple of weeks in general dental practice. If you want to really blow the course leader's socks off, get experience in multiple dental settings like maxillo-facial departments, private practice, laboratory work and community outreach. Some courses will only accept a minimum of 2 weeks in a general dental practice so ensure you are pro-active in securing your placement.

Remember, as with any medical profession, work experience placements are highly sought-after. Apply early and to as many places as possible to be in with a good chance. Give the practice a ring, ask to talk to the dentist or manager and introduce yourself!

If you can't secure this kind of opportunity, anything working with the general public will be useful too. Care homes and nursing homes are brilliant placements as they demonstrate your caring and patient side (hopefully!). You also get a chance to develop your bedside manner and learn how to talk positively and reassuringly to people! If you're concerned about what experience to get, email the course leaders and ask them what would be best.

If you've got the money, there are also gap year programs set abroad in a number of different countries. You'll live with other students whilst attending a variety of placements for as little as one week or four weeks and above.

CV fundamentals

From here, you'll need to make sure your CV is ready to impress. You likely already know a bit about good CVs and this first point is going to sound silly but you would just be amazed at how many people don't do this first point. So we're going to cover all bases, as daft as they sound.

Have you checked your contact details?

Far too many people submit CVs to our website without including the simplest of things – their names, addresses, telephone numbers and email addresses. Why don't they do this? We don't know but don't be one of them! Have a look now. Are you sure they're all correct? Didn't you change your mobile a few months ago? Do you have a new number? Don't scoff, just check. And make sure it's right-aligned at the top of the CV.

Similarly, are your email address and voice-mail message work-appropriate? No 'Wassssuuppppp' or, alright? If you're using a current work address to seem more legit and have handed in your notice, are you sure you'll still be able to check it when people start to contact you? The best thing to do is use a free service like Gmail or similar. Make your handle your name and, if you're having trouble finding one because your name is too common, add a middle initial or similar.

Is it jazzy and eye-catching?

If the answer's yes then stop right there, my dear. CVs are not meant to be jazzy. They are formal documents designed to persuade someone to give you tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of pounds in return for your skills. White paper, simple and readable fonts of around 10 or 12-point (without fancy effects, italicization or inappropriately-bold words) and a margin of around an inch or an inch and a half. Don't add your picture, don't add clip-art and don't be too colourful. Perhaps a dash of tasteful colour is appropriate but it's very, very unlikely.

Basic CV features

Next, we can move onto a simple CV structure. This includes an optional personal statement, your qualifications, your job history and your skills.

Personal statements

These are a debatable area. There are pros and cons for including a personal statement but, ultimately, it's a matter of personal preference and of your ability to write well. You need to be able to avoid trite phrases and utilise your experiences meaningfully. For instance, 'efficient worker' would read much better as '85% of appointments met within 10 minutes of booking time' or something similar.

The debate for and against personal statements runs thus: Personal statements are redundant because your cover letter should contain everything they would include. Or, personal statements are great because they quickly summarise and demonstrate just why an employee should consider your CV rather than just chucking it away.

It's a difficult one. For you, a personal statement may well be a waste of space that could be used to fit in more information about valuable roles and placements. The kinds of 'soft skills' usually contained in a personal statement will be in your cover letter, making it a needless addition.

Whilst we're on that particular point, it has also been argued that writing things like 'I'm a punctual, personable dentist who wants to help people” and so on is truly pointless – partially because you would never write the opposite - and therefore the same could be said of anyone - and partially because stating that you can be friendly to your co-workers and turn up on time doesn't make you special.

However, personal statements can be useful when you have specific skills to communicate clearly and precisely. If you have especially pertinent 'hard skills' (e.g. things you can actually do, such as 'experience with posterior composites'), here would be a good place to put them. As we all know, employers and HR departments have so many CVs to consider that they don't spend a great deal of time looking at individual ones. Any key words you've gleaned from the job description (especially those relating to specific skills) will do well if highlighted in a personal statement.


After your personal statement (if included!) comes your qualifications. By the time you're professionally qualified to this level, there's really no need for your GCSEs, A Levels or equivalents to be included. Dentistry is the kind of course where virtually every university requires the same standard of candidate so again, it's redundant. You all got straight A's or A*'s.

Instead, list the details for your undergraduate and post-graduate degrees in reverse chronological order – where you studied, when, qualification gained (or to be gained) and mark received (or predicted mark).

Your job history

Next comes your job history or professional experience. Don't panic if you're a dental student and applying for your first job – there's still plenty to write here. Call it professional experience and list your relevant placements. And, as with qualifications, keep these in reverse chronological order.

For conventional jobs, employers need names, start and end dates, job titles and your duties. Keep descriptions short, simple and information-laden.

Professional membership

As a dentist in the UK, you will of course be registered with the General Dental Council (GDC). You may also be part of other professional bodies that relate to your specialism or particular interests. Pop them in here.


Next, you should present your various, wonderful skills. Bullet-points are very useful here for keeping it readable. The best skills will always be your hard skills because these make you eminently employable. Soft skills are welcome too but shouldn't be your main focus. Remember, specific and demonstrable are the adjectives of the day here!

Interests and references

Finally, you need your references and your interests too. The latter is, again, debatable as it could be seen as a waste of space and not especially relevant. But, in a high-pressured job such as dentistry, adding a couple of outside interests can be good for showing that you aren't all work with no play and that you can maintain a sensible work/life balance.

For references, you don't need to actually list details; just state 'References available upon request.

Making sure your CV is successful

Now here's the fun part. Virtually every dentist can achieve the above to a merely-adequate level; you are going to be taught how to make it brilliantly accessible and encouraging for your reader.

White space

White space is one of the best things you can do in today's world. You see, there is a lot of information flying around these days and, moreover, you probably have a lot to transmit with your CV too! The term 'white space' refers to the gaps around your paragraphs and bullet points. It may be tempting to squeeze things in or squash paragraphs together closely but, for heaven's sakes, don't. Readers need space to think (literally!). They'll be scanning for key words and phrases so a restrained and simple layout will make this much more enjoyable, thus heightening your chances of being considered.

Keep sentences and paragraphs short, simple and spacious.

Spelling and register

This is a very important one because it shows your literacy skills, understanding of appropriacy and attention to detail. It's not meant to be some kind of dyslexia-bashing or pompous apostrophe-worship. It's just that you must demonstrate adequate English skills as well as showing that you can observe both the macro and micro details. If English isn't your first language, do not ignore this step. You may have reached your IELTS score of 7.0 but it is still very possible that you have errors which will deter readers subconsciously (or consciously!).

Always reread your work. Sleep on it, then read it again. Get someone else to read it. Get your depressingly-proud 'grammar nazi' friend off Facebook to read it. Pay a professional to read it. Are there any jarring errors in spelling or punctuation? Similarly, is it in the correct register? By this, we mean the level of formality. This is for a professional job and, therefore, should read as such.

Finally, take care to write in the active voice and ensure it flows nicely. If you aren't familiar with the difference between the active voice and the passive voice, it refers to the ordering of your sentence. An active sentence would be “I am good at dentistry'; a passive one, “dentistry is something I am good at”. It's easy to mistake the latter as more formal because this is how we report things in the media. But, for CVs, it will just make you sound fuddy-duddy and not like a dentist of action and competence! Reread and where necessary, rewrite.

I've only just graduated and I haven't much experience – what do I write?

For our dental babes in the woods, don't worry. You may not have a full job history but you will have plenty of placements and experiences to focus on. If this applies to you, call your job history your 'professional experience' and list your placements instead. As always, be sure to only include things that are genuinely relevant. Pick out the hard skills acquired in each placement and make sure these are easy to find and understand.

I've been working for years – how do I distil my experiences?

If you're a dental doyenne, then you have the opposite problem! What to include and what not to include? For you, professional development is paramount. Obviously, you still need to show your job history but if there's a choice to be made, focus on things that show how you've extended and developed your professional capabilities.

How to write a cover letter

Once your CV is ordered and polished, we can move onto the cover letter! If you're anything like me, you may have once been under the impression that cover letters are boring and repetitive conventions that you can't see the point of. However, if it seems this way, you probably ain't doing them right!

Cover letters give you an excellent opportunity to really sell yourself and summarise your best points. There's five stages to a good cover letter:

First, why you want this job especially

You could have applied to other jobs. So why this one? It'll probably be because of the speciality, the patient group or possibility for professional development. Be careful not to sound as if you can only see the personal gain in the role, however!

Next, your qualifications

This is another chance to highlight your readiness for the post. Professional development attainment, graduate work and placements can all be used to show how you are a great fit for the job. As always, mention specifics and state how they link to particular areas of the role.

Then, what you expect to achieve

Again, this isn't meant to be a self-centred or demanding paragraph. Talk about how you expect to professionally develop as a result of getting the post. Perhaps you're looking forward to the experience, training or further qualifications that will result from working in this job. Whatever it may be, let them know.

Last, your loveliness

We've talked throughout about the importance of hard skills and demonstrating exactly how you can be useful but there is an opportunity for soft skills as well. The last part of your cover letter is a nice area to let them get a little feel for who you are. Don't go overboard and keep it restrained but do enjoy the opportunity to get your character across.

To close, your contact details

Finally, nothing special here – just invite them to contact you if they have any questions and be sure to restate your email address and phone number!

Making sure your cover letter is outstanding

Now, as with the CV, let's take your cover letter from standard to stupefying. There are a few tricks for improving your writing and adding more punch to what little space you have.

Cover letter formatting

This is as advised for CVs: keep fonts simple and readable in black and in a size no bigger than12-point. If you find yourself wanting to use 14-point, you probably could insert more evidence as to why you're the best gal/guy for the job! Use plain white or very pale paper and, if you've invested in a professionally headed and printed paper, this would be a great time to use it.

Passive writing is not something you should be doing...

Because it unnecessarily lengthens sentences and doesn't read well! Remember from before? Using the passive voice is bad writing and just doesn't sound good. Be careful to write emphatically and positively by using the active voice. It's not “Responsibility for team management was held by me for three years”, it's “I led the team for three years”.

Brainstorm good language

If writing isn't your natural forte, you may find it useful to take a moment and brainstorm some good words to use. Time spent researching adjectives to describe your soft skills and verbs to demonstrate your confidence and capability will never be wasted time. Indeed, thesauruses can be very useful here. Do be careful not to use unnatural language or ridiculous and old-fashioned words but it can be helpful in giving you a little nudge towards vocabulary that you've temporarily forgotten about.

Linking claims to evidence

Finally, be super-sure that you haven't made any claims without linking them back to concrete situations where they were developed or undertaken. This isn't so much of a worry for soft skills but for hard skills, you should always, always be able back them up.

Following up on applications (or interview!)

Much like personal statements, following up on your application (or interview) is a debatable manoeuvre. Some people argue for it and some against it. The problem is that you don't know how your employers will perceive it and some of them get really ticked off if you send any well-meant but seemingly-smarmy follow-ups.

Those who like a follow up see it as proactive and a good indicator of your social skills. Those that don't seem to find it an unnecessary, brown-nosing irritation. So, you'll have to make the call on this one. Try and gauge what the company would prefer and be true to yourself. If you wouldn't normally follow up, don't change that now. If you would, then hopefully your sincerity will shine through any employer qualms.

Interviewing well – preparation for the big day!

Your application went off without a hitch and your well-written, well-researched CV and letter got you to interview! To get ready you need to do quite a few things but first, let's go over the basics that everyone needs to complete for a successful interview.

Check your route

Even if you've made the journey a trillion times, just check once more. You may know the way there and you may know how long it takes but you don't know if there have been any public transport cancellations or if there's an unexpected carnival or protest scheduled. If you're driving, use the day before to make sure the tank's full. Should there be a swathe of other drivers or a broken pump, filling up en route could easily eat into your travel time and make you late.

Get your outfit ready beforehand

And not just the night before. Think about this a week or so ahead if you can. Do you need to get any dry-cleaning done? Or, upon retrieval from the back of the wardrobe, you could find your formal winter coat actually needs some mending. Naturally, you'll lay out the main items the night before, have your shower and so on; just make sure the more complicated ones are sorted too.

Similarly, if you think you need a haircut, give yourself a few days for it to 'settle in'. Are you one of those people who always hate your new cut to start with? Don't damage your self-esteem by getting it done the day before interview.

Role-play with a friend

Don't roll your eyes! It's a good way to make sure you haven't any niggling traits that will let you down. There are three big ones that won't look good; framing everything negatively, failing to make eye contact and fiddling.

Being a moaner is really dull and a sure-fire way to turn off your new employers. If you are a bit of a moaner, you may not realise it – thinking that it's perfectly normal because your friends are too polite to tell you it's very boring. As such, a role-play will be a good way to catch this before it gets to the crucial stage.

Eye contact and fiddling can also be hard to self-correct as, again, you may not realise you're doing it. You don't have to aim for 100% eye contact as staring is just a bit scary. But you should at least start and finish every statement with eye contact, allowing yourself a bit of looking away as you think. For fiddling, my personal strategy is to discreetly sit on my hands. Others like to fold their hands in their lap.

Ring ahead to check for competency testing

Not every interview will have competency testing but some do – especially as your level of responsibility grows. Hopefully, they will have let you know but don't be shy of double-checking. If they did specify testing, you should be able to find out the form of test, even if they don't want to give out too much information. Should it be a psychometric test, don't panic. You're either right for the job or not and it isn't the sort of test you can 'trick'. Whatever happens in a psychometric test, happens!

Invest in speaking succinctly

As you know, it really, really pays to prepare your answers before you get to interview. Writing your CV and cover letter will have given you a head-start but there are a few areas of information you should also corral and refine.


Ensure you can summarise yourself with a few simple but impressive and information-laden sentences. It sounds simple and perhaps not something you would have to practice but it's amazing how 'umms' and 'aahs' can sneak into the most confident person's descriptions. Identify the things that are most important to mention and have a little practice. Likely, your sentence structure is something you can leave to flow on the day but make sure you're clear about what you want to include.

Job summaries

Similarly, you need a neat précis of each relevant job or placement so you can talk swiftly and usefully about what it was and how it supports your application. It's a good idea to have a think about the less-relevant ones too, just in case you find it would help to talk about them. This will make sure you sound good but is also very, very important for ensuring you know your CV inside-out. Woe betide the applicant that can't answer a question on a section of their CV!

Why this job and where will it take you?

You'll already know what to say for these kinds of questions from writing your cover letter. Why do you want this job especially? Don't quote it verbatim but use the main points and practice telling them attractively.

Your weaknesses

Ah, that age-old interview question: “What are we letting ourselves in for here?”. Answering this well can be difficult but the key lies in your preparation. Identify your main weakness and reframe it. Always late? This used to be a weakness but now you get up earlier and exercise to wake yourself up and prepare for the day. Curt with customers? It's because you're focusing so hard on the job but you've learnt to automatically ask people how they are before you start the appointment's work, making everyone in the room more comfortable. Take your problem and make it sound good.

Skills, knowledge, abilities and experience

This is the big one here. Do this well and it could be an evening's work but it will improve every interview you go to from here on. Sit down with paper, pen and a nice drink and get to know yourself. What are the key features you can offer to an employer?

The skills you most need to pinpoint are your hard skills – what can you actually do? Knowledge relates to your qualifications, placements and CPD – what do you know and understand? Abilities are examples of when you used your skills and knowledge properly. Finally, experiences are the times and places your abilities came into play. Get these all laid out, clear and memorised and your interviews will be much easier!

Typical job paths in dentistry

Once you've aced your interview (and of course you will have!), you can start to think more about how this role will fit into your future in dentistry. With many, many areas in which you can practise, there's something for everyone here.

If you're starting off in your career, you'll probably want to join a pre-established set-up. This will allow you to gain experience and understand how dentistry is generally achieved. You may apply to work in a hospital department, at a general dental practice or in a community clinic. This will be great for acquiring standard experience.

If you fancy something a little off the beaten track, you could apply to become a dentist for the armed forces, work with prisons, within different industry settings, move into cosmetic dental work or specialise in working with those who have complex impairments and disabilities. Any of these will bring specific and interesting professional pressures.

Should educating and helping others be a central passion, you could also consider joining outreach programs that work with the community or an outfit like Dentists Without Borders. Working in these kinds of areas could eventually lead into dental education or community project lead work.

Alternatively, if really getting into the nitty-gritty of it all appeals, you may want to specialise in surgical dentistry and work with the more severe and intense dental issues.

Once you've accrued some years of experience and had a chance to get a good amount of CPD under your belt, private practice beckons! You can either start your own or buy a pre-existing one – whichever you plump for, funding must be sourced and you'll need both marketing and business skills. When you've acquired said practice, you can either keep it entirely private or provide NHS treatment as well. Through this, you establish a set amount of expected Units of Dental Activity and receive money back upon completion.

For those of you who want to work in the NHS, please note that you need to undertake one year of Dental Foundation training, which can be stretched to two years if you prefer.

Continued professional development for dentists

Finally, let's consider the ways in which you can develop and expand your practise and knowledge. As a registered dentist with the GDC, you must complete 250 hours of training every 5 years with a minimum of 75 hours in verifiable CPD. They recommend spreading it across the 5 years so don't panic about taking on a full-time Master's straight-away.

'Verifiable' CPD involves certain standards – the aims and goals of how it will help you and your patients must be very clear and there should be documents to prove your attendance. General CPD can be things like online courses, journals, lectures and peer review (amongst many more).

There are many, many ways of achieving your CPD requirements – for instance, magazine subscriptions can arguably count towards it. And if you're desperate to find it, even Colgate offer CPD, bless 'em.

So what now?

No matter your stage on your dental career path, you should have a good idea of what to do and what's to come! Whether you're choosing your A levels, applying for your first post, considering consultancy or finding out some pointers for a friend or child, we wish you the very best in whatever's next! Let us know how things went via Facebook or Twitter and be sure to tell your friends if you think this could help them. Good luck!

Dr Natasha Verma: Working As A Dental Practitioner

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